Ladies first ahead of USA Pro Cycling Challenge

Women’s race schools spectators in Aspen on high-stakes female bike racing

2011 women\'s race in Aspen
Photo courtesy Justin Todd

Women will come first when cyclists start racing into Aspen on Aug. 22. That’s right, the all-men’s cycling USA Pro Cycling Challenge will be preceded by the Blue Ribbon Alpine Challenge, a criterium race in downtown Aspen that finishes an hour before riders in Stage 3 of the Pro Cycling Challenge from Gunnison are expected to arrive in Aspen.

“This Pro Cycling Challenge — it’s really, really cool to have such a high level of racing here in Colorado because we have amazing roads, but it’s a men’s-only race,” says Alison Powers, winner of this year’s Boulder Roubaix and the North Boulder Park Classic criterium and a U.S. time trial champion, as well as a Pinecliffe resident. “I get asked so many times, ‘Are you racing in it?’ and it’s like, no, it’s men only.”

Last year, while the Pro Cycling Challenge was ramping up for its inaugural run through Colorado, a trio of people in Aspen had a similar thought — where, in all the buzz about a men’s road cycling race, were the women cyclists?

“I was born and raised in Aspen, and when they made the announcement about the Pro Cycling Challenge everyone was like, ‘Oh isn’t this so cool? Aren’t you excited?’ and I really wasn’t that excited because there wasn’t a women’s event,” says Jessica Van Garderen (formerly Phillips), the 2002 and 2009 Women’s National Champion cyclist. Over a glass of wine with two other Aspen residents, Jan Koorn and Justin Todd, she says, she suggested that they put on a women’s race.

“Our main goal is to expose people to women’s racing and let people know that there actually is women’s professional cycling,” Van Garderen says. So, they’re taking advantage of the huge crowd that arrives for the men’s race by racing women on the same roads an hour before the men are set to arrive.

“It’s also fun for the spectators because otherwise they’re just standing there, kind of there staring at empty streets,” Van Garderen says.

“They get to see women’s racing like, ‘Oh, wow, this is really cool,’ and realize that we don’t just stop and braid each other’s hair all the time,” says Powers, who tied for 10th place in the 2011 Alpine Challenge.

Women cyclists have fewer races in their season, and often see shorter courses and smaller prize purses in those races. Even the treatment in terms of support like race dinners, provided lodging and race coverage sends the signal that female cyclists just aren’t as important.

While the women’s season winds to a close, the men’s season continues on with the epic Tour of Utah and the Pro Cycling Challenge.

“Yes, women aren’t as strong as men, we don’t go as fast as men, but we race just as hard, we train just as hard, and it almost seems like sometimes the women’s races are more action-packed than the men’s races because they’re smaller teams,” Powers says. “Men can take teams of nine sometimes to a race, and women can take teams of six, maybe eight, but you can’t control a race like with nine riders, so the race leads are always changing. It’s very unpredictable, and I think, frankly, it’s more exciting.”

In 2011, the race was a three-day event that included a time trial to the Maroon Bells and a circuit race in Snowmass Village. The race organizers set lofty goals, including a National Racing Calendar designation.

But while Blue Ribbon Restaurants came through as title sponsor, many of last year’s donors dissipated this year, forcing organizers to scale down from the three-day race with a $25,000 prize purse to a one-hour criterium for what may be a $10,000 prize.

“For 2012 we hoped to grow the event and further promote women’s cycling, but we were unsuccessful in securing the necessary funds or resources to put on the full race,” Koorn said in an Aug. 1 statement released to announce the changes to the race. “We have no reserves nor loans to fall back on, and we must now change the race to fit within our budget.”

Koorn says everything is going well in preparing for the Blue Ribbon Alpine Challenge, and they’re still looking at a roster of up to 40 racers, though some have had to cancel in favor of focusing their schedule on stage races.

“I guess I can’t complain, we at least have a race,” Powers says. “But at the same time, it’s still a bummer.”

The tickets are booked, so many of her teammates from Novartis for MS will still attend the criterium, Powers says, with a few bonus days to spend in Aspen before the race. And she says she hopes other teams will do the same.

“I think it’s really important that the women go — even though it’s only a crit, still go, still support the race, because if they see that people are still willing to come, then maybe new sponsors see it, and OK, let’s make it a three-day race again,” Power says. “If nobody shows, then it could go away.”

If attendance is good and donations or sponsorships increase in the coming years, the race could grow again to multiple days, and, ideally, multiple towns.

“I think the goal is really to have women have stages in each town like the men do, so it wouldn’t really be for us to continue to put on a longer event in Aspen, but maybe to help other towns if they were interested,” Van Garderen says. “It was kind of frustrating because some of the written material that the Pro Cycling Challenge has talks about how there’s an equal amount of women that ride as men. And it’s like, OK, so you see that, why can’t you just do a little more? But maybe in the future.”

This year did see the debut of the Exergy Race, which Powers and Koorn both mentioned as examples of a balance over the gender divide in professional cycling, but it may be too soon to say there’s real change on the way.

“I don’t know how much of a movement is out there right now,” Koorn says. “But I’d like to think that we’re trying to do our part of it and encouraging other people to think about women’s cycling when they’re putting on these big events for the men.”